Porcelain vases and roaming pets can be a precarious combination. Luckily, a rare Chinese vase stored for decades in the open cupboard of a central European house inhabited by multiple cats and dogs remains intact—and more valuable than ever.
Last month, the vase, which dates to the Qianlong dynasty (1735–1799), sold in a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction for just over $9 million.
Per the auction house’s listing, “[T]his masterpiece ranks amongst the most complex and exquisite porcelains from the Qianlong period ever to have emerged on the market.”
The vase’s exterior features an intricate, celadon-green lattice. Its Western-style enamel and Rococo-style flowers were crafted in yangcai, meaning its “foreign colors” were inspired by contact with Europe. A second vase—painted to depict nine peaches in the traditional blue-and-white style—is visible through the holes in the outer vessel’s decorative screen.
“The extremely small group of pierced, double-walled vases that were produced for the Qianlong Emperor provided probably the greatest technical challenge ever for the potters at the imperial kilns,” writes ceramics scholar Regina Krahl in her Sotheby’s catalog essay. “The perfection of the execution is next to miraculous.”
Called the Harry Garner Reticulated Vase in honor of the British collector who once owned it, the 278-year-old ceramic sold at auction for just £44—roughly $1,500 USD today—in a 1954 Sotheby’s sale. How the vase ended up in a remote central European country (the auction house doesn’t specify which one) after almost 60 years off the market remains unclear.
The elderly homeowner who’d inherited the vase learned of its significance after calling in Dutch art consultant Johan Bosch van Rosenthal to appraise her art and valuables collection. As he explains in a video, van Rosenthal immediately recognized it as a piece of great value.
“It is a miracle that this extraordinarily fragile vase survived half a century in a home surrounded by countless pets,” says Chow in a statement.
According to a 1742 court record, an imperial kiln supervisor named Tang Ying oversaw the vase’s potting, glazing, firing and enameling, all of which took place in the Jingdezhen kilns in southern China. Oscar Holland of CNN reports that the ceramic was probably housed for some time in the Palace of Heavenly Purity in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
If kept in the palace, the vase likely remained there for many years, until wealthy Europeans and Americans started collecting Chinese porcelains in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
“After the Opium Wars, from 1870 on, we see relaxed security at the emperor’s court. Eunuchs or other courtiers could steal something out of the imperial collection,” Kyunghee Pyun, an art historian at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, tells Atlas Obscura.
It’s also possible that the vase might not have been made for the court at all. Pyun explains that Chinese collectors usually preferred smooth surfaces over colored sculpture and unusual shapes.
“The imperial kiln was aware of foreign markets, so that’s why they wanted to create something that was a novelty. Something extravagant, in a way,” the art historian adds. “That particular ceramic is sort of an outlier in terms of Chinese taste for collectible ceramics.”
According to CNN, the opulent artifact is one of several rediscovered vases that have sold for high sums in the past decade. In 2018, another 18th-century vase found in a shoebox in France sold for €16.2 million (then about $19 million USD). And, in 2010, a Qianlong vase found in a London home broke the world record for Chinese artwork, fetching £43 million (then around $68 million USD) at auction.